Environmental Aspects of Photovoltaic Solar Power: The New Zealand Context
Photovoltaic (PV) systems have been utilised around the world for economic and environmental benefits; they allow the owner to produce their own electricity and operate with zero emissions, reducing the electricity sector’s impact on the environment. However when examining the life cycle of the photovoltaic system (cradle to grave), the manufacturing process, transportation and disposal of the system have associated emissions and other environmental impacts. Recently New Zealand has seen rapid growth in the installation of grid connected PV solar systems despite the economics of PV systems to individual households and to New Zealand being unclear. Research by the GREEN Grid project shows a variety of reasons why people install PV systems, including increased independence from electricity suppliers, insulation from further power price rises, and the chance to try out an innovative technology. Environmental concerns do not feature highest amongst the reasons for the early adopters in New Zealand to install PV. Despite this finding, the public conversation of PV and its environmental benefit has grown over the last few years, and at a national level policies have been mooted to encourage PV to assist New Zealand in reaching its 90% renewable electricity target. PV might aid New Zealand in two major ways: (1) contributing to the country’s renewable electricity generation and (2) reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is prudent to be realistic about how PVs are produced and integrated into the New Zealand grid from the environmental perspective. This paper first covers the different types of photovoltaic panels that are currently available and their corresponding manufacturing methods, as well as other life cycle stages. Secondly PV systems will be viewed in the New Zealand context, specifically how they offset GHG emissions, which will be quantitatively affirmed by foreign life cycle assessments. The paper concludes that PV leads to a reduction in New Zealand’s GHG emissions. However, PV’s potential to minimize New Zealand’s GHG emissions is very limited for the following reasons: (1) the relatively small contribution from electricity generation to New Zealand’s overall GHG emissions; (2) PV’s very small contribution to GHG reduction in electricity generation; and (3) limited scope for GHG reduction into the future. There are other environmental impacts that are localised to the area of panel manufacture, and which New Zealand may not see. In addition there are issues related to end-of-life and disposal of panels. PV technology is however changing rapidly, and it is likely that panels with higher efficiencies will be available in approximately 10 years, which may make PV more attractive to New Zealand.